BALTIMORE — The month of June marked the coming out party for the Coast Guard’s shiny new national security cutter — the Bertholf.
Making its way north up the eastern seaboard, the flagship vessel of the much maligned Integrated Deepwater System, held on-board parties for VIPs and tours for the media and public.
Adm. Thad Allen, commandant of the Coast Guard, after riding from Washington, DC., to a Baltimore pier, said he believed that the program had “turned a corner.”
Deepwater, a system of boats, aircraft and a software and communications backbone that will one day tie them all together, has suffered from cost overruns, delays, and a radical change in the management structure. It is also the subject of one FBI probe.
About the same time the Bertholf arrived at Washington’s Navy Shipyard, a Government Accountability Office report titled “Change in Course Improves Deepwater Management and Oversight, but Outcome Still Uncertain,” landed on lawmakers’ desks.
Like Allen, the report was mostly upbeat.
“Coast Guard leadership is making positive changes to its management and acquisition approach to the Deepwater Program that should put it in a position to realize better results,” the report said.
A major change was the removal of the prime contractor, Integrated Coast Guard Systems, as the de facto manager of the program. The Coast Guard was ill-prepared to oversee the contractor’s work. Since the Coast Guard took over the program, the service has faced a difficult task in building up its own acquisition workforce, the report noted.
It has changed the way it procures boats, aircraft and other equipment. The “asset-based” approach has allowed the service to hold competitions for individual pieces of equipment outside of the ICGS contract. This differs from the “systems-of-systems approach,” where the program’s progress was judged holistically.
The new system allows managers to spot technical glitches and cost overruns more easily, GAO noted.
The problem is that the technological backbone — the communications, software and sensors suites that will tie the 12 new ships and aircraft together — doesn’t fit well into this revised approach.
“An asset based approach —- would entail some risk, as interoperability among all Coast Guard units and DHS components, as well as Navy and others, must be assured,” GAO said.
The Bertholf is not certified to tie into the Defense Department’s secure network, SIPRNET. The common operating picture, which would allow pilots and intelligence officers on board the cutters to see and share what their sensors are picking up, is also not yet in place, since most of the boats and aircraft are still under development.
For example, the MH-65C helicopter on board the Bertholf does not have the ability to transmit live video back to the ship, said the cutter’s assistant operations officer, Lt. Krystyn Pecora.
National security cutters will be the service’s command-and-control ships, so it is crucial to ensure that all sensors and communications systems work seamlessly, and that they can communicate with Defense Department and other agencies.
“How the Coast Guard structures … the [network] is fundamental to the success of the Deepwater program,” GAO pointed out.
Allen told reporters that some of this technology will be installed on the cutter during three maintenance periods scheduled to take place during the next year.
“We will start integrating the command-and-control structure inside the Coast Guard and with our partners,” Allen told reporters on the pier outside the ship.
GAO said the service’s new management structure “is not fully positioned to manage these aspects under its new paradigm.”
Allen said, “We will not operate the ship until it is in compliance.”
Despite all the elements of the network not being completed, the crew is eager to prove the new ship’s worth, Pecora said.
After its East Coast publicity tour, the cutter was scheduled to return through the Caribbean and the East Pacific on its way to its home port in Alameda, Calif.
“We’re all hoping for a drug bust on the way around,” Pecora said. “We all want to prove that we’re the Bertholf. We’re here. And we’re here to work.”
The first national security cutter has several new features not found on the 378-foot high endurance cutters, the largest of the service’s legacy boats.
The engineering room uses a machinery control and monitoring system, which allows crewmembers to monitor the propulsion on one screen using point-and-click interfaces.
The propulsion system, which has one gas turbine and two diesel engines, can switch between five modes. Combinations of the turbine and the engine can drive one or both shafts. For example, one engine can drive both shafts or the engines and turbine can combine their power to propel the ship.
This allows the cutter to accelerate from 5 to 30.5 knots in two minutes. The 378 cutter reaches about 29 knots.
Engineering room crews can monitor the entire ship with internal cameras. If a fire breaks out, operators can shut down ventilation systems and seal compartments.
All of its controls are duplicated at a workstation on the bridge.
Another unique feature is the ability to launch and land boats from the stern.
A recent man-overboard drill was completed in 4 minutes, 55 seconds. Launching a small boat from the side of the 378-foot cutter would take upwards of 10 to 15 minutes, Pecora said. And doing so at speeds of 20 knots could be harrowing.
When the boat returns, the coxswain throttles up onto a platform, which captures the boat with a net and automatically pulls it in.
A starboard side hatch, roughly the size of a small garage door, also allows for easy loading and unloading of supplies and personnel.
The Bertholf is also the first ship to use a 57 mm, self-loading Bofors gun.
Ammunition is automatically placed into the breech. Weapons specialists can control the loading, aiming and firing process on a computer screen.
“This whole boat is just one floating computer… for the point-and-click generation, this is the boat,” Pecora said.
Crew members also are raving about the improved living conditions. The galley is significantly larger and centralized. Passageways are almost twice as wide as the 378. Six coasties share one room and one shower. The older cutter berths 20 per room, and residents share three showers.
While the shower-per-crewman ratio is not much better, “No one likes sharing a room with 20 people,” Pecora pointed out.